Guidebook author advocates for the Elkhorns

August 10, 2006 12:00 am
Bill Sullivan, Oregon's leading author of hiking guidebooks, talked about some of his favorite places in the state during a slide show Tuesday at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. "Listening For Coyote" is Sullivan's chronicle of his 1,000-mile hike across Oregon in 1985. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Bill Sullivan, Oregon's leading author of hiking guidebooks, talked about some of his favorite places in the state during a slide show Tuesday at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. "Listening For Coyote" is Sullivan's chronicle of his 1,000-mile hike across Oregon in 1985. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

The Elkhorn Mountains welcomed William Sullivan by turning his beard into an ice sculpture.

Also he wore wool socks on his hands.

Sullivan melted, eventually.

And thawed.

And despite the frigidity of that first encounter, Sullivan has harbored warm feelings for the Elkhorns ever since.

"I really didn't know what I was getting into there," Sullivan said, reminiscing about his ice-encrusted introduction, almost 21 years ago, to the imposing mountain range that looms over the west side of Baker Valley.

But it wasn't the premature blizzard that surprised Sullivan when he first hiked into the Elkhorns in early October of 1985.

It was the beauty.

Snow he sort of expected, even with summer just two weeks gone.

"It's not all that unusual to have a snowstorm then — that's why the Blue Mountains frightened the Oregon Trail pioneers so much," Sullivan said. "The Rocky Mountains were easy."

In the two decades since he first visited the Elkhorns, Sullivan has hiked hundreds of miles in the mountains — often basking in their sunshine rather than being battered by their snow squalls.

Sullivan can tell you how to get to any trail in the Elkhorns.

What he can't tell you is why these mountains have stayed a secret while the Wallowas, their similar though somewhat taller neighbors to the east, lure thousands of backpackers every summer and are frequently compared to the Alps.

"So many people drive past the Elkhorns on their way to the Wallowas, and they really don't realize you have the same granite peaks, the nine-thousand-foot mountains, the wildflowers, but you don't have the same crowds you do in the high Wallowas," Sullivan said.

"All the time I meet people, some of whom have hiked all over Oregon, who have never even heard the name, Elkhorns."

You can't blame Sullivan for that.

He's probably done more than anyone else, in fact, to promote the Elkhorns as a prime place to hike.

Sullivan, 53, has been Oregon's leading author of hiking guides for more than a decade.

One of his books, "100 Hikes/Travel Guide: Eastern Oregon," lists most of the major trails in the Elkhorns.

Sullivan, who lives in Eugene, said he faithfully touts the Elkhorns during the slide shows he presents across the state.

"In the Elkhorns you can drive to seven-thousand feet — on a paved road," Sullivan said. "In the Wallowas you have to walk miles and miles to get to seven thousand feet."

Yet hikers continue to swarm the Wallowas every summer, a proliferation that has prompted the Forest Service to limit the size of backpacking groups, while in the Elkhorns, which crowd the western horizon just 25 miles away, the mountain goats almost always outnumber the people, and the size of your group is limited only by how many hikers you can persuade the climb the steep slopes.

"For all I've written and said about the Elkhorns, it hasn't seemed to spoil them, really," Sullivan said.

He doesn't want to spoil the mountains, of course.

But Sullivan, like a patient parent who never misses his kids' Little League games, keeps cheering.

He brought his pro-Elkhorns campaign to the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center's Leo Adler Theater on Tuesday afternoon.

Sullivan showed several color slides from the Elkhorns during a 50-minute program that he called "a virtual tour of some of my favorite places in Oregon."

Sullivan, a fifth-generation Oregonian, has quite a few favorite places.

He's especially enamored of the state's wild sections — places where he's more apt to see a herd of elk than a crowd of camera-toting tourists.

It was in fact Sullivan's affinity for wilderness that brought him to the Elkhorns, and put him in the path of that blizzard, in 1985.

In the winter of that year Sullivan, then 32, decided to go on a hike.

This wasn't unusual — he had liked to walk since he was a boy.

The path he penciled out, on the other hand, went miles past ordinary.

Sullivan decided to walk across Oregon.

But not straight across.

If you actually did walk straight across the state — or at least as straight as you could walk without blundering through someone's back yard or becoming submerged in a swamp — you'd cover maybe 400 miles.

Sullivan planned to hike 1,000.

He started his trek on Aug 17, 1985. Not being one to shirk, he began at Cape Blanco — as far west as you can stand in Oregon without dunking your feet in the frigid saltwater of the Pacific.

Seven weeks and several hundred miles later, Sullivan sat snug and warm inside an historic log cabin beside the North Fork of the John Day River.

The date was Oct. 7, 1985. Snow mantled the cabin, which goes by the fanciful name of "Bigfoot Hilton."

The next morning, Oct. 8, Sullivan set out for Anthony Lake, 18 miles away. There he was supposed to rendezvous with his parents, Wes and Elsie (Elsie was born in Baker City in 1922), and restock his backpack with food.

(Sullivan's a hardy hiker, but even he can't haul enough food to sustain himself for a thousand miles.)

Sullivan described that snowy day's hike in his 1988 book "Listening For Coyote," the chronicle of his cross-Oregon hike.

"When I hiked on up to Crawfish Lake, the snow deepened to one and a half feet. The map showed no trail beyond Crawfish Lake over the craggy Elkhorns. I could not have found a trail even if one had been there. As I bushwhacked onward, snowy branches dumped their loads on my pack and coat. Snow-hidden logs sent me sprawling into the freezing white. I had not brought mittens, thinking to save weight, so instead I put wool socks over my numb fingers.

"After a shivering second lunch, I boot-skied down through the drifts to the black disk of Anthony Lake. It was 19 (degrees) when I reached the lake, my beard a mass of white ice."

Two weeks later, on Oct. 20, Sullivan concluded his trek by climbing from the Snake River to Hat Point. The day before he had stood on the banks of the Snake in Hells Canyon, the easternmost point in Oregon.

Five years later Sullivan returned to the Elkhorns.

He served as a trail guide for 100 members of the Chemeketans, a hiking club based in Salem.

That trip, as it turned out, was research as well as recreation.

Over the next several years Sullivan carried out an exhaustive exploration of Oregon east of the Cascades to gather information for his "100 Hikes" book. That volume, part of a series of similar guides that encompasses the entire state, was published in 2001.

Sullivan said Tuesday that he intends to hike all 100 eastside trails again, a task he started earlier this summer and expects to finish next.

He'll incorporate any changes he finds — a trailhead gets moved, for instance, or a road is renumbered — into the second edition of the "100 Hikes" book, which he expects to release in the spring of 2008.

This weekend Sullivan will lead a group of eight hikers — members of the Obsidians hiking club from Eugene — on a backpacking trip along the Elkhorn Crest Trail

Possibly he'll step very near where he did on that distant day when he became acquainted with the Elkhorns.

This time, though, his beard will need no defrosting and his hands won't require the protection of socks.

The forecast is for fair weather, with not a frozen flake to be found.